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How to Stimulate Innovation Without Blowing Up the Lab

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Modern organizations have to think ahead if they don't want to fall behind. But how can you motivate your people to come up with tomorrow's ideas when they're occupied with meeting today's needs? Pat Brans talks with Keith Harmeyer about why innovation is essential, how to encourage creative thinking, and the value (and risk) involved in making innovation part of the job.
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New products and services are being developed at a rate never before seen. Innovation is now make or break for any company. If you can stimulate innovation within your team, you can step out ahead. If you can't innovate, you'll quickly lose out to the competition.

To find out more about innovation, I spoke with Keith Harmeyer, a speaker, author, trainer, facilitator, and recognized thought leader on the topic of innovative thinking. Keith co-authored the book SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas [Dog Ear Publishing].

Why is innovation so important today?

Keith Harmeyer: It's no secret that today we all live and work in an innovation-driven world. Innovation has become the benchmark of success in business; the companies and business leaders we all talk about and aspire to be like are the ones considered to be the most innovative.

And this requirement for innovative thinking doesn't only apply to organizations. Today, every individual is also under pressure to think more innovatively. Customers, clients—and yes, even employers—expect fresh, new, innovative products, services, processes, experiences, and ideas on a continuing basis. And if you're not showing up with those innovative solutions, someone else will.

Innovation is much more important today than in the past. Not that long ago, a company could thrive for decades on just one good idea. Today, you need great ideas every year, every season, every day. Can you imagine Apple or Nike introducing a new product every ten years? We would quickly forget who they are.

The reason, of course, is technology, and the impact it has on every aspect of our lives. Technology allows us to do more, in less time, and less expensively than ever before. It also allows us to receive instant information and feedback regarding anything that interests us.

In other words, virtually every aspect of our world today is in a state of continual change. Each of us has to choose between two options: keep up, or quickly become irrelevant.

What are some of the things that prevent individuals from innovating?

KH: First, it's important to be clear on just what innovation is. Many people are intimidated by the very idea, believing that innovation requires coming up with big, game-changing ideas that the world has never seen before. But the most common type of innovation involves simply identifying something that could be improved upon, and then doing it. Our SmartStorming programs define innovation as "the introduction of something new or different that provides greater value or benefit."

Of course, risk aversion and fear of failure are other reasons individuals, teams, and entire organizations fail to innovate. The rule "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is still applied by many in the workplace. Unfortunately, in today's world, this philosophy ultimately guarantees failure.

The people you work for don't want yesterday's solution tomorrow. They want something new and better. And again, if you won't give it to them, they'll find it elsewhere.

What about teams? Do certain team dynamics hamper innovation?

KH: Absolutely. Collaborative work processes, such as group brainstorming, offer a multitude of benefits—if they are executed properly. Unfortunately, all too often they are not. Individual egos, office politics, irrelevant distractions, and herd mentality ("groupthink") can all derail a team's innovative thinking efforts, and hinder their ability to develop fresh solutions. It's up to team leaders to gain the skills, tools, and techniques to manage these processes effectively and keep their teams on track.

What advice do you have for stimulating innovation within an organization?

KH: Like most important business processes, a commitment to innovation starts at the top. An organization's leadership must not only embrace and model an innovation mindset; they must encourage and facilitate that mindset [...] throughout the organization.

As mentioned earlier, recognizing that risk and temporary failure are necessary for success in today's marketplace is crucial. People need to feel safe to try new things, suggest unorthodox ideas, and be allowed to learn from (rather than be punished for) setbacks. You may have heard of Google's 80/20 Rule, where the company encouraged employees to spend 20% of their work time on creative side projects, unrelated to their core work responsibilities. While the company has discontinued the program, it clearly demonstrated [Google's] focus on innovative new ideas. And other forward-thinking companies have successfully adopted the concept.

Why do software developers need to be innovative?

KH: I actually can't think of an activity where innovative thinking would be more important. First, the "product" developers are creating is, by its nature, the "engine" behind most of the innovations we experience and benefit from every day. It would seem to me that one of the key objectives of any team or individual developer [is] to create a solution that delivers greater value or benefit than was previously available—the definition of innovation.

Equally important is the way in which they produce their work. By constantly searching for new, innovative ways to streamline their processes, working smarter and more efficiently, they can also deliver greater value to their clients, employers, and coworkers.

What advice do you have on ways in which software engineers and development managers can better innovate?

KH: The same advice I give to everyone: Become an "every day innovator." Innovation is not an occasional activity; it's a mindset. Learn to think and act like a creative problem-solving genius. Search for ways to improve the things you do or come in contact with. How could you do it faster or more efficiently? How could you make it better for someone else? More cost-effective? More elegantly designed? More fun?

In the end, innovation is just creative problem-solving. Find something you can make better, and then do it.

A lot of people talk about intrapreneurship these days. What exactly is intrapreneurship?

KH: Intrapreneurship is simply acting and performing like an entrepreneur, while working within an organization. In other words, an employee approaching his or her job as if it were his or her own business. The implication is that such individuals will be willing to take more risks, think more innovatively, and invest more of their time and mental and emotional energy into producing successful outcomes.

How do companies set up intrapreneurship programs?

KH: The Google 80/20 Rule mentioned earlier is an excellent example. When an organization has the vision, confidence, and resources necessary to officially empower its employees (or a specific group of employees, such as those in product development) to approach their work in an entrepreneurial way, the results can be exciting and return big rewards. Obviously, some individuals will simply approach their work in this way because it's their nature—and especially if they get support from their supervisors. But when such an initiative is a sanctioned part of an organization's culture and business model, the likelihood of success is much greater. When people feel safe to behave entrepreneurially, they will be more inclined to do so.

What are the dangers of those programs?

KH: The paradox of intrapreneurship is that, while an organization may see a significant benefit in encouraging it, the risk of setbacks and damaging failures increases also. You want to give people freedom to experiment, but don't want them to blow up the laboratory, so obviously such programs must be carefully managed and monitored. New ideas must be vetted thoroughly and risk/reward ratios determined before moving forward. But if managed properly, ensuring that your organization will have a continuous supply of fresh, new, innovative ideas in the pipeline makes these programs extremely valuable.

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